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 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2014

Death Valley Debacle

This topic is a hot one…very hot, in some respects. It's the ongoing story of the ban--at least temporary--on sporting events in Death Valley National Park. And by "sporting events," I don't mean golfing at the Furnace Creek resort. I mean running and cycling events.

I'll give you a very brief summary of the situation, but I urge you to follow the links I'm providing and read the whole story (if you're interested). The articles at the other ends of those links do a very good job of filling in all the details…better than I could do.

For over 25 years, ultramarathon cycling and running events have passed through Death Valley National Park. The Furnace Creek 508 bike race is probably the grand-daddy of all ultra bike events and is feared and revered in equal measure by the cyclists--and the support crews--who tackle it. It runs each year in October. The Badwater Ultramarathon is at least as legendary for runners, starting at the lowest point in North America--Badwater Basin (in the middle of the park)--and ending at Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states…135 miles away, with 13,000' of elevation gain in between. It's run in the heat of summer, which, in Death Valley, means the hottest spot on earth. There are also two Death Valley double centuries, one in the early spring and one in the late fall, and a few other, less challenging events.

All of these events have one thing in common: Death Valley. They run in or through the valley because of its sere but spectacular beauty and its severe, unforgiving conditions. There is nowhere else quite like it. It is iconic and unique. (I have twice done the spring Death Valley double century, and have also laid out cycle-tours that explore every road in the region. I don't know it as well as many people do, but I know it well enough to have a great deal of respect for its daunting environment, and a grudging affection for its austere, fierce landscape.) Thousands of ultra runners and cyclists have tested themselves in the petrie dish of Death Valley. And they come back, year after year, to pit themselves against the challenges, which may range from snow to ferocious headwinds, from 120° heat to throat-parching, desiccating aridity. 

That at least has been the situation for these past 25 years or so. But it all came to a grinding halt this year when one person decided to pull the plug on these grand traditions. Kathy Billings took over as Superintendent of Death Valley National Park just a year ago this month. She came to the park from a position at another national park in Hawaii. She had no prior experience with Death Valley in general, nor, in particular, with the sporting events occurring in the park. And yet, almost immediately, she decided she "wasn't comfortable" with various aspects of the events, generally described as concerns about the safety of the participants, the interaction with other park users, and any possible adverse effects the events might have on the environment.

And so she put a moratorium on all new event permits until she conducts a safety review. No new permits until October of this year…and of course who knows what she will ultimately decide, after conducting her review? She may decide all these events are too dangerous, too damaging, too…something, and simply ban them all forever.

Her decision sent shock waves through both the running and cycling communities. It was also a hard blow for Inyo County, where the park is located. The little county is most supportive of the events, as they bring in much needed revenue from all the visitors associated with the races. It was big enough news that it made the front page of the Sunday Los Angeles Times. That's the first link I'm giving you, to that very good article. It's fairly long, but if you read it through, you'll have the full story pretty well laid out for you. Presumably, the LA Times can be counted on to present the facts in an unbiased, responsible manner, and I think the article does that.

To read Superintendent Billings' explanation as to why she has enacted the moratorium, read here.

All of the events mentioned above are put on by AdventureCorps, a sporting promotion company run by Chris Kostman. To get Kostman's side of the story, visit his AC website here. This is where I need to insert a disclaimer of sorts. As a commercial artist, I do a lot of work for AdventureCorps. I create all of the maps and most of the graphics and logos for their assorted events. In fact, I may be the only person who is turning a profit out of this ridiculous Death Valley fiasco. With the valley closed to him, Kostman has been scrambling like mad to recreate his events in other, nearby locales. And I have been scrambling along right behind him, creating the maps and graphics for the new venues. It has been a modest financial boon for me, all this work. But I would much prefer to have never had those assignments come my way; to never have had events come to this pass.

I know Chris to be extremely responsible and conscientious in the management of all the events he promotes and stages. Speaking now as the director of another ultra sporting event (the Terrible Two double century), I have first-hand appreciation for what goes into staging such events. And I can say that his attention to detail is second to none. His care and concern for the safety of his race participants is about as good as it can be. You will read in both his statement about this matter and in the LA Times article that AdventureCorps' safety record is spotless, faultless…squeaky clean.

Billings and her staff do not dispute this excellent record, going back many years. And yet they still persist in manufacturing fearful ghosts out of thin air: trumping up almost entirely imaginary examples of times and places where a participant or a support crew were in danger or caused danger for someone else. It's very thin stuff, their weak little fictions about safety issues.

To be fair, it's not such a stretch to think that some safety review of the events is warranted. They are all extreme challenges. They push the envelope of the possible: what can a human being accomplish, up against some fearsome odds? I will grant that such oversight might be within the Superintendent's purview, even in spite of the excellent record of all of the events, down the years. But as these linked pieces note, such a review could easily have been done during and around the regular schedule of 2014 events. Indeed, observing the events as they unfold--something Billings has never done before--might have provided many more insights into the nature of the events than any dry study of statistics or the reading of findings from assorted "consultants."

But no…in spite of entreaties from Kostman and from the representatives of Inyo County, and in spite of howls of outrage from the sporting community, Billings refuses to budge. She's going to do it her way and not compromise one single inch with any of the many other stakeholders in the mix, all of whom know far more about the events than she does. And that is where she loses any credibility or any right to our respect.

Just because you have the power to do something doesn't mean you should do it. Power wielded unwisely is a grave offense against the community and a breach of the trust put in one's hands. When you stand back and look at how she has handled this matter, it's hard not to see it as the action of someone who is drunk on her own power. She has draped herself in the mantle of safety and responsibility, but that is a gauzy tissue at best. What really shines through is a hunkered down, bunker mentality…an overgrown child pitching a red-tape tantrum.

I'm not one of your tea-party loonies who thinks less government (or no government) is better. I like our government, most of the time, and I especially like our government when it does the things that drive those tea-party types nuts: acting as a restraining, guiding hand when it comes to protecting our environment…places like our national parks and forests. I'm very big on that kind of governmental oversight and control. But what Billings is doing is exactly the sort of bureaucratic overreach that gives government a bad name. She could very easily have met the event promotors and the county officials in some middle-ground compromise, where the events could have proceeded and where she could have done a very good review--in process--and everyone's needs and goals would have been met. But she never even considered any other option aside from doing it her way…the hardline approach. There is a name for that sort of behavior: dictatorial.

This story is far from over. It could eventually be resolved amicably, or it could spiral downhill into an unholy mess, with runners and cyclists the losers (not to mention the citizens of Inyo County). Is there anything any of us can do to influence the outcome of this standoff? Yes there is. Kathy Billings may be--for the moment--a dictator in her little corner of the world, but she is a public servant and is answerable to various supervisors, right on up the chain of command in the Parks Service and the Department of the Interior. And those supervisors are answerable to our Senators and members of Congress. You can add your views to the already stormy stew of outrage by writing to your elected representatives or to the high-hats at the Department of the Interior. Hold this little tinpot tyrant accountable: remind her that we don't answer to her; she answers to us.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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